Monday, March 26, 2012


Most non-military airline pilots today were flight instructors at some point in their career. It's the easiest way to build flight time early in your career, and most ex-instructors agree that the experience is invaluable. Not everyone enjoys it, mind you, and even those liked instructing are usually happy they don't have to do it anymore. It's a very rare airline pilot that does any instructing outside the airline's own training department, not least because most airlines restrict their pilots' outside commercial flying. Still, many airline pilots keep their CFI certificates current. You never know when you'll be back at square one in this industry, and it's a fairly simple process to renew the certificates every two years. "I worked too hard for my CFI to let it lapse," is a common sentiment.

I enjoyed instructing, have family members interested in flying, and don't mind doing the occasional BFR for ex-students, so I kept my CFI current for years after I ceased actively instructing. Until three years ago, that is, when I accidentally let it lapse. The FAA had reissued all my certificates with new numbers (the old ones used my social security number); the problem is that they did this only a month after I had renewed my CFI, so I forgot that my expiration month was one month before the issuance date on the front of the certificate. Two years later, I went into the local FSDO to renew, only to be told I was a month late. Once a CFI expires, the only way to get it back current is via "reinstatement," or essentially retaking your CFI checkride. Many instructors have recurring nightmares about their first CFI checkride, and have no desire to repeat the experience!

Thus, I was a lapsed CFI for the last three years. I kept meaning to get it reinstated, especially after I got back into general aviation, but never got around to it. The sad thing is that I had an airplane available to do it in the whole time, a very nice Warrior belonging to an ex-student in Southern California. I knew several DPEs in SoCal fairly well and one agreed to do my checkride whenever I was ready. Still I procrastinated, until about a month ago when I decided to finally get it done. I set up a checkride for March 10th and hit the books.

Although I've been flying the C170 alot, it's been a few years since I've flown a PA28 and a good nine or ten since I've seen a chandelle or lazy eight. I also haven't flown from the right seat since upgrading in 2008. Some practice was clearly in order. I flew out to LA the week before the checkride intending to fly my ex-student's Warrior, but there was an unexpected hitch. The plane was just out of annual, the shop was supposed to leave the keys for me, but they either forgot or hid them very cleverly as I was unable to find them. My ex-student had a spare set but was in Connecticut at the time. The trip wasn't quite a waste as I did meet up with my good friend Kelly who is now a mechanic for FedEx and went sailing at Marina del Rey. But it meant I'd be taking my checkride with little or no practice. I called the examiner and he swapped my checkride around to the afternoon of the 10th so I could practice in the morning.

Saturday before last, I arrived at Brackett Airport bright and early. It was a brilliantly clear, smooth morning, absolutely perfect for flying. The airport itself is unchanged from when it was my home turf as a flight instructor and freight dog, but it has only a fraction of the traffic it had then. There were five busy flight schools on the field in 2002, and now there are two small ones. Back then, the traffic pattern would be humming by 8am on a nice weekend morning, but Johnny and I seemed to be the only ones on the field when we arrived. As I flew throughout the day, the airspace seemed far less congested than I remember. It's a sad commentary on the state of general aviation that even Los Angeles' airspace is fairly sane these days.

It was my first time seeing Johnny's 1984 Piper Warrior. It's a very sweet little bird, far nicer than the ratty Pipers I used to fly at ADP. It has clean original paint, a sensible steam-gauge and digital IFR panel, and very nice leather interior that Johnny had installed at considerable cost ("It was this or a new SR22. The new interior was a bargain by comparison"). As I settled into the right seat, the old familiar controls fell comfortably to hand. Perhaps I remembered more than I thought! We started up, taxied out, finished the runup, and took off. We stayed in the pattern for six landings, since this was the plane's first flight since coming out of annual. I ran through the litany of normal, short-field, and soft-field takeoffs and landings, and power-off accuracy approaches. They all felt very good and were entirely satisfactory, as though I'd never left the plane. I guess a thousand hours in various iterations of the PA28 made some sort of impression on me. Landings complete, I headed out to the strangely quiet practice area. In the summer of 2001 alone, I had no less than 15 scary-close near-misses in the teeming practice areas around Brackett. Slow flight, stalls, and steep turns were every bit as docile as I remembered the PA28 being. I did a few good chandelles and faked my way through lazy eights, chattering the whole time like the CFI I was supposed to be pretending to be. I dropped down low and did a turns around points and across roads, and completely botched my eights-on-pylons. Oh well, I always hated that pointless maneuver and never did do one that looked much like whatever it's supposed to look like. And then back to Brackett for a quick breakfast and my 11:30am checkride.

The checkride turned out to be a non-event. I knew the examiner and had sent a number of students to him, but wasn't expecting a free pass, and he followed the PTS faithfully. He did not, however, require anything beyond the fairly perfunctory number of tasks the PTS requires for a reinstatement. There were a few takeoffs and landings, a couple stalls, some slow flight, some steep turns, a chandelle, a turns-across-roads (no eights-on-pylons, thank God), and a few other minor tasks. It took less than an hour, and suddenly I was a new CFI/II/MEI once again. Johnny urged me to fly the plane some more so I flew to Zamperini Field in Torrance to pick up my friend Kelly. We flew around Palos Verdes, across Long Beach Harbor, and down the Orange County coast to Laguna Beach. Turning around, we climbed to 4500' and transited the LAX SFRA, then dropped back down along Malibu Beach out to Point Dume. Coming back the other way, we hugged the Santa Monica Mountains past the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park Observatory and transited the 210 freeway past the Rose Bowl and Santa Fe Dam back to Brackett, landing as the sun was setting. It was a gorgeous reminder of everything I loved about flying in Southern California. It was Kelly's first time in a light plane in a while and her first aerial view of her adopted home, and she loved it.

Certificated or not, I won't be putting out my flight school shingle any time soon. Hours spent flying for compensation, instruction included, are counted against the weekly and monthly flight time limits at my airline job; my airline is understandably loath to share me with anyone else. So any instructing I do will be purely for the fun of it, with family, friends, and maybe an ex-student or two. That said, I expect having my CFI again to open up some interesting opportunities, one of which I did last week. It's long been a dream of mine to fly clear across the country in a small plane. As it happens, I have a certain ex-student who wished to relocate his nice-but-underused Warrior from Southern California to Connecticut. Stay tuned.


"La Vida de Perro" said...

Seeing your photos took me back to a flight I enjoyed about 30 years ago. I departed on a beautiful CAFB day out of Riverside, west to the coastline, then north over Orange County, LAX and out to Palmdale in the High Desert.

Oh, and did I mention that I, a strictly VFR Cherokee driver, was at FL200 in the back seat of a T-38? Thanks for firing up those old memories!

PeterC said...

I enjoy your blog for the mixture of life that it brings us. Good to see you are still in general aviation and also how much you enjoy life in general. Back in '91 I rented from ADP as they were the only FBO that would rent a twin. It lasted only about six months as I moved out of the area. I still visit EMT from time to time to visit the Santa Anita racetrack.

Tom B. (China) said...

Nice pictures! On a separate topic, have you read the Lebanese CAA crash report on Ethiopian 409, the 738 that crashed off of Beirut? It's at:

Scary stuff. Was wondering what your thoughts were. I realize it's a lot of armchair quarterbacking since we weren't there with the pilots, but I also noticed that Ethiopian Airlines has refuted this report. After reading this report I can't help but compare it to Colgan 3407 in terms of the basic pilot errors.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sam, for a wonderful post! Been reading your blog slowly but surely, and really enjoy your stories.


Ron said...

Welcome back to SoCal! No matter which part of the world I'm flying in, I always love coming back to the L.A. basin for the unique mix of historic airports and beautiful vistas. Not much can compare with flying down the coast low and slow.

You're so right about the traffic. It's crazy how little flying is going on around here anymore. I hope this is the nadir of an economic cycle and not a permanent state of affairs.


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